A wintry Monday lunchtime on London's Aldwych, the perfect time to escape the depressed west-end workforces enduring dull lunch breaks and be huddled into the basement of a stylishly spartan hotel for a little hands-on time with Assassin's Creed, and a few pearls of wisdom from producer Jade Raymond.
First, the long-awaited hands-on time, the first I've been offered since witnessing demonstration footage and slickly-produced trailers at numerous showcases and events over the last 18 months. Initial impressions are immediately focussed around the atmosphere at street level (where much of play takes place), we're in Damascus, the most overtly Islamic of the three main cities offered in 1191's Holy Land. Ambient music swirls, crowds chatter and public speakers entreat the gathered crowds.
There's commerce, veiled women carrying goods on their heads, and a palpable sense of something brewing. All of which seems entirely in-keeping with the tense politics of the time, the clashing of civilizations, and it soon becomes apparent that this is a living and breathing world you've been thrust into - in which far more is at play than simply your missions and the over-arching plot we're promised will envelop us from beginning to climatic end.
That missions are simply one (albeit important) part of the overall gameplay experience is a merciful relief, as the trial version Ubisoft Montreal are allowing us to play today doesn't include full missions; the developers apparently very keen not to reveal any element of the plot before the game is released in November. You'd think this would leave my hands-on time somewhat bereft of entertainment, then, but this couldn't be further from the truth as there are fights to pick, citizens to get on-side, back streets to explore, Templar's to battle, rooftops to leap across and, if all that wasn't enough to keep me amused in the absence of missions, heaps of atmosphere to soak up simply exploring middle-ages Damascus.
Forgoing these more cerebral pleasures, I opt immediately to knife the nearest guard, swirling almost dance-like at the poor grunt with a few presses of the 'X' key and a little twiddling of the left analogue stick (the right stick controls the camera), and, to the applause of my friendly Ubisoft PR assistant, I've already dispatched my first foe - in some style too. Of course, the other nearby guards are less than impressed, and I'm surrounded before I can use the back-right trigger, combined with the 'A' jump button, to hop-skip and jump my way to safety. Time to fight again it would seem, and this time I'm using 'B' to block the attacks that reign in before responding with some style using 'X' and that left stick - with which I rapidly move between the guards. The context sensitive controls are working a treat (considering my obvious inexperience) - even if I am struggling to make my cowardly Altair stop-fighting and run for the hills as I wish him to at times.
It's now time to escape, and running headlong at a wall holding 'A' I'm pleased to find my assassin climbing the building and making for the roof, the context sensitive controls once again doing things in obvious manner - if somewhat differently from other games. Apparently, Ubi Montreal developed tools to create thousands of ledges over two inches deep all over the game's cities, creating a veritable playground for people to climb. Helpfully, guards will chase and follow, but they won't climb, making a rooftop escape the best chance for Altair to escape after an assassination or fracas. Reaching the rooftop, use of the 'A' button once again sees Altair leap between surfaces, and scaling minarets and once I've reached a high point I'm afford a stunning view of the city, with new landmarks and areas uncovered via this reconnaissance (and added to my map).
Time for a cinematic intake of breath before another context sensitive action: a leap of faith. Spying a hay cart hundreds of feet below, Altair leaps salmon like from the top of the minaret, diving head first into the hay. Not only is this an awful lot of fun, it is of course a great way of escaping unwanted attentions. Another way is free-running, perhaps the least historically authentic inclusion in the game ("but we thought it was very cool," Jade Raymond offers), which sees yet more context enhanced button presses see Altair swinging, leaping, flipping or jumping between protrusions, walls, canopies and more - suspended above street level. Another fun way of escaping foes, or just a giggle of epic proportions.
Of course, the action man approach isn't always the best way for Altair to move around the cities and further his mission objectives, you can also move silently through crowds, simply blending in with the teeming masses, or, if you're feeling particularly cunning, making like a Monk to sneak into certain well-guarded areas. The crowd dynamics are one of the game's most important atmosphere enhancing elements, that also seem to be key to the gameplay. Push one of the hard-working ladies carrying a pot, and if she drops it the crowd will hurl abuse and the guards will start getting edgy. Gently push past said lady, using 'B', however, and no one will be alerted to Altair's presence. Move over, if you see a citizen being bullied, you can tackle their assailants and win over friends amongst the populous. These friends will come in handy if you're subsequently attacked in their vicinity, or if you're trying to make an escape post assassination and need a little help escaping the guards.
Little touches like this, which build to a multi-layered and brilliantly complex whole are what should make Assassin's Creed stand-out from the third-person action titles that have gone before it.
Sitting Altair down on a bench for a moment (another way of avoiding guards), I'm ushered into a small theatre for a few words of wisdom from Jade Raymond, who is accompanied by a steely looking Altair, complete with full regalia. She tells us that Assassin's Creed will include 20 hours of gameplay, if you stick to the main plot and don't indulge in any diversions, before telling the crowd of assembled industry types that the development team (previously responsible for the Prince of Persia games) have tried to break a few conventions of the genre in a bid to achieve more 'common sense design' principles. The double jump is gone, the cities are fully explorable, you can speak to people, the crowds act as real crowds and the context sensitive controls mean Altair does the things a real person might do at a given instance.
Jade is going to talk us through a previously unseen mission, with Ubisoft Montreal's associate producer at the helm. After a short real-time sequence in which William de Monferrat argues with King Richard, we're charged with assassinating the trouble-making ruler of the city of Acre. Sneaking into his fortress along with a crowd welcoming the King, we zip up a side passage, finding ourselves on the roof, from where we assassinate guards using throwing knives before looking down into William's court where he is in the process of instructing his senior men. We're told that an aerial assault is the order of the day, and once William is facing the other way we leap down, killing him in one swift, seamless, and incredibly smooth move. Time to kill a couple of guards and make a dash for it, Altair racing out of the fortress pursued by most Acre's armed forces. The pursuit leads to a rooftop, from where Altair instigates a leap of faith, hurling himself in cinematic style into the safety of a welcoming haystack. Mission accomplished.
Presentation concluded, it's back to Damascus for us, as we return to sample the game a little more 'hands-on'. Of course, the controls take a little getting used to, and murdering guards isn't quite as intuitive as it looks in the demonstration - we're also slightly concerned that the 'futuristic' elements hinted in the HUD (and the 'memory paused' pause function) are going to damage the game's intriguing Kingdom of Heaven-esque plotlines. Not so, the associate producer assures, also revealing that this secretive side to the game will be tantalisingly revealed within the first five minutes of play.
We also learn that Altair can't swim, after we watch him drown in a river, and we're told this is something to do with a childhood event that will be revealed in-game (privately, it is also hinted that this feature was deemed a little much on top of the free-running, etc., and we hear that should Assassin's Creed 2 get the green light, then Altair might 'overcome' his phobias).
All in all in then the breadth and freedom of the game's worlds is staggering, and the movement and combat can at times be a joy. That said, our inability to sample missions, or spend longer with the game leaves us unsure whether Ubisoft Montreal's 'organic design' mantra has really hit the nail on the head from a control perspective (do players have the patience to embrace this new scheme?). That said, Assassin's Creed is truly 'next-generation' from an artistic and design standpoint, and it looks like we could be rewarded with a truly inventive title, even if it isn't utterly flawless when it reaches the Xbox 360 and PS3 in a few weeks time.